He spanks in anger

I've seen my brother-in-law strike his kid, and I no longer want him as guardian.

Published March 20, 2007 10:42AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was raised in a house where you only got spanked when you really crossed the line. Thinking back to childhood, I can only remember a handful of times when this occurred; the only distinct memory being when I was throwing a rock around a visiting guest's car and planted it right in the middle of the rear windshield. It wasn't like I was being malicious, just 6 and oblivious to anything other than the fact that throwing rocks was fun, and a quick swat from my dad certainly brought it to my attention that this was not acceptable behavior.

My only other memory of physical punishment against children came from my days in a rural public school (I began home-schooling after third grade and never went back). Having a small student body meant mixed classes of older and younger children. After a gym class was disrupted by some particularly disrespectful horseplay from a couple of older students, the teacher sent for the heavy wooden paddle from the office, evenly split the class in two, regardless of their involvement, and gave every member of one group five hard whacks while the others watched. I'm not really sure what he planned on teaching us that day -- that sometimes the innocent are hurt during the pursuit of justice? That he was just a really cruel bastard who'd had enough screwing around, goddamnit? -- but it is the strongest memory from my time in public school, one that makes me both queasy and furious as I recount it.

I bring up these two stories to illustrate the following:

A) I understand that spanking can be an effective tool for discipline when used judiciously.
B) Misuse of this tool provokes a strong, angry reaction in me.

Now that I've given you my personal preamble, let me give you the setup to the current scenario. I have two nephews; let's call them Taz and Dexter. Taz is older, and quite a handful. He has a short attention span, doesn't listen or take directions well and is extremely physically rambunctious. Dexter is younger and not as physical, but has an amazing ability to push his brother's buttons. Both have a strong need to be the center of attention, both are quite stubborn.

Starting when Taz was 2, his parents had a very difficult time syncing up on punishments: She would try timeouts and retraction of privileges, he would spank. I remember once being at their house and Taz was acting out. The mother (my wife's sister) had stepped in and was counting to five before Taz would be sent to timeout, when the father swooped in, declared, "Daddy doesn't need to count!" and delivered several firm swats. This kind of inconsistent punishment lasted for the next couple of years. I'm not precisely sure of the timing of everything, but let's just assume that around the time that a therapist was consulted by the parents due to Taz's extreme day-care behavior they finally got on the same page about punishments and the spankings mostly stopped, except as a last resort.

Lately, however, spanking has returned to the forefront of his arsenal, and it's particularly violent. On returning home from a visit at her sister's this afternoon, my wife recounted an incident where the boys were playing in the backyard, and Dexter was doing his best to piss Taz off. This escalated until Taz threw a ball hard at his brother's head. Acceptable behavior? No. Worthy of punishment? You bet. The response from his father, however, was to storm out of the house, swoop up his elder son, and deliver a series of blows that could clearly and loudly be heard through walls and windows -- my wife said that she'd never seen anyone get smacked that hard outside of a fistfight. The boy was then dragged bawling and screaming upstairs and who knows what happened there.

After my wife told me about it, she said she was glad I wasn't there, because she was afraid of what I would have done. I doubt I would have taken a swing at my brother-in-law, but in my gut, I know that I certainly wouldn't have left without words being exchanged and I'm honestly not sure that I could have kept my hands at my sides. Most of the time, anger just slides off me and I stay positive, but on the rare moments that my blood gets up, well, I can go a little overboard.

This leads me to my questions, because I need to know how I should prepare myself for what happens when there's a repeat performance and I am there to witness it. I don't really want to tell someone else how to raise their kids, so should I just steel myself as best I can and just acknowledge that this is the way that they punish in their family and it's none of my business? Should I get involved and threaten to call the cops on him if I see this again? Should I just go off on him for taking out his anger and frustration about having a hyper, out-of-control 6-year-old on the child himself? Or should I just throw down and ask him if he wants to try that on someone his own size? This is where the background on me comes into play -- I'm clearly having an extreme emotional reaction to this, and it's clouding any sense of judgment I've got about my brother-in-law's actions.

To take it further, they are the designated guardians of my son should anything happen to my wife and me, and at this moment in time, I'll be dammed if I'll send my boy to that house. My wife and I haven't discussed it yet, but if I can get her to agree to select a different guardian, are we obligated to tell them? Do we need to sit down and have a chat about why I won't trust my child to them should, God forbid, something happen to us?

Thanks very much for your time. I hope you're able to give me some perspective on this, because I'm certainly too fired up to give myself any.

Pissed About Punishments

Dear Pissed,

As you may or may not know, I have no formal training in psychology or social work. Nor am I a parent. I do not write as an expert. I write as a writer: I share my own experience and I use my intuition.

I think spanking is bad and should be discontinued. I think that we peers ought to intervene on behalf of children in cases where we see them being beaten. But I am not in favor of giving the state more power over child-rearing practices, except where clear abuse or neglect is suspected.

I do think you have a responsibility to determine if the level of punishment meted out in this household constitutes legal child abuse. I suggest you consult someone in social services in your area in order to find out.

And I do think you ought to intervene. You and your wife first need to agree to change the guardianship. Then you change it. Then you four adults sit down in a neutral place and you explain to them that you have changed the guardianship because you do not approve of the way the husband punished his son.

I think you do that much. And if, through your consultation with experts, you have concluded that what your wife saw fits the legal definition of child abuse, then you should also tell them that if you witness something like that again, you will be obligated to call the police.

Where such a conversation will lead I do not know. I simply think it is morally necessary. In this way you protect your own child, and you send a message. If they want to talk, talk. If this causes a rift, you manage the rift as best you can.

I know that some people find the writer Alice Miller a little over the top, but her writings on child abuse and mistreatment I find heroic. Particularly I like her idea that being an ally, or "enlightened witness," can have a good effect on the child -- it shows the child that he or she is not completely alone, and gives some hope. And I find it telling that you yourself have an explosive temper. I do not know for a fact that your explosive temper is related to the corporal punishment you received as a child. All I can say is that what I have observed among my male friends is that those who have explosive, violent tempers are the ones who were treated violently by their fathers.

In short, my lay opinion is that spanking is bad. Rather than ask, Where is the line? I think it is a better idea to simply eliminate spanking altogether. Do not spank your kids. That is what I would say.

Do I have kids? No. I am just a writer who was not spanked, and who believes that not being spanked was a good way to be raised. I am a writer with a conscience and a voice.

So I encourage you to change the guardianship arrangement and tell them why you are changing it.

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